102 minutes | MPAA rating: R
One of the great thrills of moviegoing is coming across a young performer and realizing, within the space of just a few moments, that this could be a major star.
That’s what happens with Elizabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” writer/director Sean Durkin’s moody, almost unbearably creepy look at a survivor of a Manson-type cult.
Durkin’s tightly-wound feature debut follows our titular protagonist as she surreptitiously slips away from the farm commune where she has lived off the radar for the last couple of years. She phones her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who drives three hours to pick her up. Soon she’s living in the guest room of the posh lakeside vacation home of Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Darcy).
Martha and Lucy share a troubled history. Lucy is ambitious, well-educated; Martha a rootless drifter.
But whatever sibling issues they’ve been through, it’s clear that the last few years have done a number on Martha.
She refuses to talk about her recent life and bounces between defiance, fearfulness and tearfulness. And Martha has some very weird ideas. Asked if she wants to go for a swim, she simply shucks off her clothing and dives into the lake, appalling Lucy and Ted, who point out they have neighbors with kids.
Durkin’s screenplay cannily employs numerous flashbacks to reveal Martha’s life on the farm; these passages start off innocuous enough but gradually take on an atmosphere of dread.
The transitions between the present and past scenes are so cleverly executed that we’re often unsure which is which. That disorientation is deliberate, creating an increasingly disturbing viewing experience.
And what makes it all the more unsettling is Durkin’s low-keyed, deliciously ambivalent approach.
When Martha first stumbles across the commune and its laid-back leader, Patrick (John Hawkes in yet another memorable role), it all seems very innocent and peaceful. Everybody does chores and Martha is told “If you’re going to live here you need to be a part of things.”
After weeks of drifting, she likes the idea of being part of a large family.
True, there is some weirdness. There are only four men and a dozen women; nobody eats until the evening meal, and the men must finish dining before the women are fed.
A young pregnant woman tells Martha that she’s expecting a boy because “Patrick only has boy babies.”
But Martha feels loved, especially when Patrick writes a song especially for her and says he wants to change her name to Marcy or May or Marlene. She’s looking forward to what the other women blissfully describe as her “special night” with Patrick.
But the worst is yet to come.
Ultimately “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is about Martha’s growing paranoia, her fear that while she may be physically free of Patrick’s clan, he’ll always be deeply rooted in her mind.
Olsen, the little sister of the famous/infamous Olsen Twins, is devastating, segueing from wide-eyed innocence to surliness, panic and quiet desperation.
Like the film around her, she prefers subtle suggestion to big actorish moments. That’s an approach that will have me coming back for more.
| Robert W. Butler